How to Choose Your Leader and Tippet

Fly Fishing Expert Robert Levin answers one of the most perplexing questions new fly fishermen face: how do you know which leader and tippet is right for you?

A fly fishermen ties something on his line. He is wearing gloves and there is ice.

Photo by Jack Murrey

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One of the more mysterious aspects of fly-fishing to confront new anglers are the leaders and tippets. There is seemingly an endless choice of these items being offered, and in different materials no less! How is one to know what is the correct one to use?

This perplexing riddle challenges each of us when we first get started, and for some remains a mystery long after. Let’s take a detailed look here in this article on how to go about making this decision in an informed, logical way.

The Job of the Leader

Diagram of a fly road indicating where the leader, tippet, and fly line are.

Let’s start with the leader. At the very end of your casting line, there will typically be a fly. Some fly designs are heavier than others and not all will weigh the same as an actual house fly, however, none will be heavy enough to create the kind of kinetic energy you need to pull the line out as happens with a spinning outfit. The weight of the fly line itself does that. In a proper cast, you generate that energy by forming a moving loop with the line in the air, with the rod aimed in the direction you want the line to go, and at the very end of the cast, that energy has been dispelled when the fly lands on the water.

Of course, that is the desired outcome, but as we all know, achieving that on each cast requires a lot of practice and skill. If the energy is not all dispelled when the loop is completely unfurled, the fly will hit the water with a snap or a slap. House-fly-sized creatures can’t do that and fish know that. On the other hand, if there is not enough energy to completely unfurl the loop, the line collapses into the water in a coil that splashes around the fly. Fish will notice that as well.

What you want to happen is for the almost weightless fly to settle on the water gently at the end of the cast. To help this process, the leader is tapered. As the energy travels toward the end of the leader, the leader becomes thinner and is less able to conduct the kinetic force because it weighs less and less as it gets thinner along the taper. The friction from moving through the air dispels the last of the energy. Although you won’t hear the audible snap of a whip crack, as you would with a bullwhip, it’s the same concept—too much energy in the unfurling loop can and does snap the fly off the end of a leader.

From this dissertation, you can understand why the design of the leader will take into consideration the size and weight of the fly you are casting, the weight of the fly line, the flexibility of the leader material, and the skill of the caster. Although there can be other considerations like if it is windy or if you are casting a two-handed rod, we will leave it at this for now.

Leader Construction

A few types of leaders sit on rocks.

Photo by Clint Losee

Leaders are made in tapered continuous lengths and are also put together in sections of different diameter material. A downside to these assembled leaders is that the sections are knotted together. If you are fishing in weedy waters, these knots tend to pick up floating debris. Most modern leaders today are tapered without any knots. In recent years, leaders made with braided material have come to market. Their advantage is they are quite flexible compared to a single strand of nylon and are useful when you are allowing a dry fly to drift with a slow-moving current where you have mended some slack into the cast. This helps prevent drag so the fly isn't dragged along causing an unnatural drift.

Size

Continuous-tapered leaders come in three lengths, typically 7.5 ft., 9 ft., and 12 ft. They also come in a series of “x” sizes which indicate the pound test strength of the tip. The larger the number the smaller the diameter and vice versa. Keep in mind that the thinner the leader, the less visible it will be to fish approaching the fly. You want a leader strong enough to deal with an adult specimen of your targeted species.

The size of the fly you are using will also need to be considered. This is typically the first piece of information you will use to choose the correct leader. Most importantly, the length of the leader is usually close to the length of the fly rod you are using. Sometimes this is adjusted for unusual conditions such as wind or resorting to a heavier fly because it’s all that’s available at the time.

Leader and Tippet Material

Leaders are primarily made with either nylon or fluorocarbon material. The light-refraction index of fluorocarbon is much closer to the refractive index of water than nylon, so it is less visible in the water. It also has greater tensile strength than monofilament so it can be thinner for a given pound-breaking strength. It just happens to be quite expensive comparatively.

One of the advantages of fluorocarbon is that it is more abrasion-resistant than nylon. This is very important when you are targeting a toothy species like a northern pike in freshwater or a barracuda in saltwater—so much so that a fine metal wire tippet is often used for these types of fish with heavier weight rods. If you are dry fly fishing with small flies, a disadvantage of fluorocarbon is that it sinks faster than monofilament. It can pull the small dry fly under the surface quicker. On the other hand, if you are nymph fishing and want the fly below the surface, you would consider this a good thing.

Your choice of material is where the tippet comes into play. Many folks will use a nylon leader and then add about two feet of fluorocarbon material to the end of the leader—creating the tippet. The tippet will be the same diameter as the tip of the leader material.

The leader will outlast the life of the fly, so you will end up tying more than one fly to the end of your leader. The knots you make to do this will use up the tippet. Just add a new piece of tippet to the end of the leader when this happens and keep going. This way, the leader won’t get shorter each time you tie a knot to put on a new fly.

Below is a chart of typically available tapered leaders in 9 ft. length. These are nylon but you can buy fluorocarbon leaders as well. These same specs other than length will apply to the 7.5 ft. and 12 ft. leaders available from the same manufacturer.

Tippet SizeDiameter (mm)Breaking Strength (lbs)Recommended Fly Size
8X.003"1.7522-28
7X.004"2.518-24
6X.004"3.516-22
5X.006"4.7514-18
4X.007"612-16
3X.008"8.256-8
2X.009"11.54-8
1X.010"13.52-6
0X.011"15.51/0-4

Let’s create a few scenarios and see which leader would be appropriate...

Making Your Choice

Let’s say you are going for trout in a slow-moving section of a river. You are using a 9 ft. rod that is a 5 weight. The fish caught here typically run about a pound or so. You want to try a classic dry fly tied on a #14 hook. You have a 9 ft. leader 4x with a 3 ft. 6x tippet material tied on for free drifts in clear water. Perfect. After your first few casts, you may want to adjust the length of the tippet if the fly turnover is not adequate or too fast. You are more than close enough to start fishing.

The next situation scenario for choosing a leader is if you’re fishing a nymph with the same rod and line. Another option to consider is using a strike indicator. An indicator typically will increase the wind resistance of the unfurling loop so a shorter tippet may be in order. Depending on the speed of the water, the position of the indicator may need to be adjusted. For larger weighted nymphs in faster water, you may want to consider a leader designed specifically for nymphing.

Strike indicator floats in the water attached to a leader.

Strike indicator floats in the water attached to a leader. Photo by Kelly Sikkema

Here are a few basic rules of thumb to help make your leader selection. 1. Rule of three: Fly size divided by two or three gives you the approximate tippet size to use (i.e. a size 18 fly equals a 6x tippet). 2. In general, the leader butt diameter should be approximately two-thirds the diameter of the tip of the fly line. For normal trout fishing, the leader butt section should be .019”-.023”.

Making the Connection

There are always going to be exceptions to the rules. If you are fishing in an unfamiliar location with a guide, your leader selection problem is solved—the guide will know the local requirements. If you are on your own, check in with a Curated Fly Fishing Expert or research the conditions online before you go. At this juncture, you should have a good starting point for selecting an appropriate leader.

Experimenting can be fun but it is also time-consuming. To use your time wisely, have a variety of leaders with you for the equipment you are using and the species you are targeting.

It does not take long at all to change a leader when using loop-to-loop connections. In this case, you will attach the loop of the leader to the welded loop of the fly line. Most manufactured leaders come with a loop on the butt end. Tippet is attached primarily these days in either of the following ways. Some folks simply use a double surgeon's knot. It is effective and easy to tie as shown above. In recent times a tippet ring has become very popular. It prevents shortening the tip of the leader as you change the tippets. The drawback of these is they are very small and if you drop one, it will seemingly disappear from the face of the earth—not something you want to do while wading in the rapids.

Loop to loop connection.

Loop to loop connection

If you would like to assemble some leaders on your own according to various manufacturers' formulas and schemes, in Google Images, search “fly fishing leader formulas” and you will find charts and images for all types of fly fishing. Choose the ones that match the kind of fishing you plan on doing. You can also visit the websites of the leader material manufacturers such as Orvis and Scientific Anglers for more educational content.

As with all the rest of fly fishing, the more you do this the easier the selection process will become. You will find your favorites and which ones serve you well.

When you have a question, don’t hesitate to contact a Fly Fishing Expert here at Curated —we are here to help you any time.

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Written By
Robert Levin
Robert Levin
Fly Fishing Expert
I have been an avid fisherperson since my teenage years. Caught the bug from my dad who fished exclusively with a fly rod. Not that he ever fished with a fly on that rod, he trusted the weight of the fly line as it would not break when he pulled a five foot Chain Pickerel out of the lily pads in the...
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